When I knew that I was going to be in India for 2 months for work, I had 2 places in mind that I would like to check off while I was in that part of the world...Taj Mahal and Nepal, and I am very glad to have the opportunity to visit both these places in Nov and Dec 2022. Post-pandemic revenge travel continues...lol!
The main reason I wanted to visit Nepal was to check off another new country (country #42). :P My initial travel plan for Nepal was to do some sightseeing in Kathmandu, and maybe do a day trip or scenic flight with a view of the Himalayas. Hiking Mt. Everest or Everest Base Camp wasn't on my bucket list coz I am not a fan of hiking. However, I'd like to see the majestic Himalayas and Everest at least once...from afar. When I was doing my research, I saw helicopter tours to Everest Base Camp but didn't consider it coz it was way above my budget (approx. $900-$1,200). However, after much considerations, I decided to splurge on a helicopter tour coz...
- I've never been on a helicopter before.
- I have no intentions of hiking Everest ever so this would be the best opportunity to get as close to Everest as I'd like to.
- I was able to gather 3 friends who were equally crazy to do this together.
- Sam Chui took this tour recently and his YouTube video looked amazing.
- Yes there is risk flying on a helicopter but what better place to do it than here where helicopter is one of the main mode of transports, especially for rescue missions.
10 December 2022 (Sat): Kolkata - Kathmandu
Arrived at the airport around 9.30am, 2 hours before our 11.35am flight so I had some time to visit the Travel Club lounge at Kolkata airport with my Priority Pass. I booked the roundtrip flights from Kolkata to Kathmandu on Air India about 3 weeks prior and was able to redeem the flights with 17,600 United miles + $67.26.
The flight from Kolkata to Kathmandu took approx. 1hr 40 min. Similar to my previous experience with Air India, a meal was served even for this short flight. I typically prefer aisle seat for short flights but I was glad I picked a window seat for this flight because the view approaching Kathmandu with the Himalayas in the horizon was pretty amazing.
Landed in Kathmandu around 1.42pm. We applied for the 15 days visa online prior to our arrival and had to make the payment at the visa fee collection counter before going through immigration. The visa cost $30 and I opted to pay with USD cash. Visa and Mastercard are only accepted in POS Machine with $1 surcharge. They also accept quite a few types of currencies so the payment process was fast and easy.
I also withdrew NPR 7000 ($53.30) the ATM at the airport as I needed cash to pay for the national park fees of NPR 5,500 for our helicopter tour the next day.
It was about 2.40pm by the time we got out of our airport and the hotel staff was waiting for us with our names. It took about 20 minutes to get to the hotel.
Our 'home' for 3 nights in Kathmandu was the Aloft Kathmandu Thamel, which is conveniently located in the city center, within walking distance to a lot of shops and restaurants. This hotel is also one of the tallest buildings in the city. We saw a group of SIA cabin crew and pilots staying in the same hotel as well.
I was given a corner room (room 619) with amazing views of the city. The hotel was clean and confortable. This stay costs $93.50 per night. I wasn't feeling quite well (thanks to all the white wine I had the night before :P) so I decided to rest in the hotel for the rest of the day as I wanted to make sure I am 100% for our big helicopter tour the next day.
Buddhi, the guy who helped arranged our helicopter tour came to our hotel at 6.30pm to give us a briefing and drew out the flight route of our helicopter tour. It was certainly helpful for him to clearly explain what we can expect to see and not see on the tour.
11 December 2022 (Sun): Mount Everest Helicopter Tour
Early start for the day. Buddhi came to our hotel to pick us up at 5.45am and took us to the airport. The hotel breakfast doesn't start until 6.30am and the hotel was nice enough to prepare to-go breakfast box for us.
Arrived at the airport around 6.15am and was guided to Shree Airlines' office to complete our paperwork and received out handwritten boarding pass. We also had to weigh ourselves, including our bags, as we'd have to split our group and make 2 trips to go up to the Everest view point (highest point) if our total weight was above 250kg. It would also cost us an extra $200 ($50/pax) if we had to make 2 trips. Fortunately, we were able take advantage of our lightweight group. =P Our flight was scheduled to depart at 6.30am to the 'Mountain'...lol!
After a short bus ride from the airport, we were greeted by our helicopter pilot, Priya. I came to find out later that they intentionally assigned us the female pilot to keep our total weight lighter so that we could do just 1 trip to the highest point. P.S. Every kg matters on a helicopter. I also found out later that our pilot is pretty badass as she is the only female helicopter pilot in Nepal...more about her later. We were so busy taking photos after boarding that we didnt' know we were supposed to put on the headset. Priya was happily talking to us through the headset and got no response...lol!
The helicopter could fit 4 passengers at the back but we felt it was just nice for the 3 of us. For the first leg of the tour, I took the right back seat. P.S. We took turns to take the front seat. Since we knew each other, we could easily hand out caemera of to the other person to help take photos/videos or exhange footages after the trip.
We took off around 6.50am...flying towards the rising sun. Throughout our flight, we could hear talk to each other through the headset and could also hear Priya interacting with other pilots to exchange information about the flying conditions. She informed us in advance that we may have some turbulence based on information provided by other pilots, but thankfully it was a mild one coz turbulence definitely feels more scary on a helicopter as compared to an airplane.
The sun, clouds, mountains....so mystical!
Quick stop at Lukla airport at 7.15am to drop off some fuel which will be used for the return trip. This was to reduce the weight before flying to higher altitude. Even though it was just a short 3 min stop, we were lucky to spot a plane taking off at this airport. Located at 9,383 feet above sea level, Lukla airport is one of the most dangerous airports with one of the world's shortest runway hemmed in by the Himalayan mountains.
It was so cool to fly through these mountain terrains. On the way, we saw the world’s highest glacier, Khumbu Glacier. I asked Priya how it feels getting to see these amazing sceneries every single day, and she said she feels blessed and privileged. I already feel very blessed and privileged doing this just once...lol!
Flying towards Mount Everest. Everest (8,859m, 29,035ft) is the highest mountain above sea level so you'd think the sharp pointy peak is Everest but nope, that's Nuptse (7861m, 25,790ft). Everest is the pyramid shaped peak (first peak from the left) in the top right photo above. Optical illusion made Nuptse look taller than Everest from this angle.
Landed at Kala Patthar (5,644m,18,519ft) around 7.30am. Kala Pathar is considered the highest altitude most will reach without a climbing permit and provide the most accessible closeup view of Everest. Our helicopter was the first and only one there as we were able to take advantage of our 'lightweight', and fly direct from Lukla to Kala Patthar (Everest Base Camp) without having to make an extra stop at Pheriche to split our group. There was actually another helicopter that arrived Lukla before us but we beat them to Kala Patthar because of this reason. =P
Our pilot had a request from the FIFA Ambassador to take a photo of this banner with Everest so we happily obliged. =) Our pilot said she doesn't usually get off the helicopter at this stop but she got off this time to take photo with the FIFA World Cup banner (World Cup was going on in Qatar during that time).
Ironically, Everest is the one that's not snow-capped. Due to the high altitude, we only stayed here for 15 minutes and I was busy taking photos and videos the entire time. It was pretty cold (-5°C, 23°F) but I had so much adrenaline rush that I didn't feel any altitude sickness nor cold...lol! I have no interest to climb here so this was as close as I'd like to get to the mountains. As quoted by our pilot Priya, she has seen enough death and destruction on the mountains as a rescue pilot to rid her of any desire to climb peaks.
After a quick and exciting stop at Kala Patthar, we switched seats and I took the left back seat for the journey from Kala Patthar to Hotel Everest View.
Can't get enough of these views of the mountains and valleys.
Arrived Hotel Everest View at 8am for breakfast. This hotel has been listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the highest-placed hotel in the world at 13,000ft/3,880m and the only way to get to this hotel is by helicopter.
We were the first to get here and had the entire place to ourselves. We were lucky with the beautiful weather and had fun taking lots of photos and videos. =) Thankful to be able to experience all these with this group of Ne'Pals' (Me-Malaysia, Eduardo-Puerto Rico, Kenny-New Orleans, Lakshya-India) who were crazy enough for us to charter a helicopter. =P
Breakfast at this hotel costs $31/pax and is optional. Yes it is pricey but given how difficult it is to get any supplies up here and with an amazing view of Everest, it was definitely worth it. Eduardo and I opted to have breakfast here and we had a good time chatting with Priya over breakfast. Priya also does a lot of rescue mission in Everest so we asked her what is the most common reason for people to get rescue from the mountains...and her answer...LAZINESS...lol!!!
More helicopters arriving as we were leaving around 9am. This is the coolest parking lot I've ever seen...lol!
Switched seats again and it was my turn to take the front seat with a "co-pilot" view from Hoel Everest View to Lukla airport.
It felt like a rollercoaster taking off the cliff. It was cool to see the approach into Lukla airport from the front seat this time around.
Another quick 5 minute stop at Lukla airport at 9.15am to refuel with the fuel that was dropped off earlier during our first stop. We also switched seats again and I took the back right seat again for our journey back to Kathmandu.
Clear skies on our way back to Kathmandu. Saw a few villages in the mountains and I wonder how do people even get to these villages.
The clouds made this mountain look so cool!
Made it back to Kathmandu airport at 10.15am. Spotted so many airlines that I didn't know about...like Buddha Air, Guna Air, Yeti Airlines (the one that crashed recently). I thought about taking the Buddha Air scenic flight initially as they offer a 1-hour Mount Everest sightseeing flight for $250/pax to fly around the mountains with no stops, but so glad I chose the 4-hour helicopter tour instead. It was pricey but definitely worth it!
So...how much did this tour cost? We chartered this helicopter for $3,600 + 4% credit card fee + National Park Fees of NPR 5,500/pax, so the total was approximately $975/pax. Bonus, we got the only female helicopter pilot in Nepal, Priya Adhikari, who not only does high altitude rescus missions, and also has a degree in Environmental Science.
Buddhi dropped us back at our hotel at 1pm after the tour. We spent the afternoon walking around the city, had momo for lunch, and bought some souvenirs.
One thing that caught my eye as we were walking around the city are the cables hanging messily across the streets and poles. Definitely not OCD-approved and I'm sure it's 'fun' finding the right cable to fix...lol!
Hung out at the hotel bar with the Ne'Pals' for the rest of the evening and enjoyed our 1 complimentary drink, a benefit for elite members at the hotel.
12 December 2023 (Mon): Kathmandu
Decided to stay in for the day to get some work done, and went for lunch at Hankook Sarang Korean restaurant, located 5 minutes walk from our hotel. Had tofu stew, egg rolls, soju, and tea. =P
Enjoyed the view of Kathmandu from my hotel room.
13 December 2023 (Tuesday): Kathmandu - Kolkata
Complimentary buffet breakfast at the hotel.
Checked out of the hotel at 11am and arrived at the airport at 11.30am with plenty of time to spare before my flight at 2.30pm.
Visited the Executive Lounge with my Priority Pass and left within 5 min coz I wasn't impressed.
Went downstairs to check out the Horizon Lounge, also accessible with my Priority Pass and it was so much nicer and better. I was happily hanging out at the lounge and was almost late to board my flight coz the lounge was before security.
First time having to stand in line on the tarmac for about 15 minutes to go through another round of bag check right before boarding the flight.
Back to hazy Kolkata! =P